Cyril Connolly (1903-1974), critic, editor, essayist, and author, is required
reading for anyone who wonders what happened to English Literature
after World War II.
His life can best be succinctly described as that particular sort of British
tragedy--the Etonian schoolboy bred for intellectual
pursuit who grew up expecting more of the world, and himself, than could
ever possibly be delivered.
Connolly described the unrelenting hazing, class-fear, and dogged
intellectualism of his school days in his autobiographical
Enemies of Promise, 1938. His ability to transcend his difficult
childhood and his years at Oxford and move smoothly into London literary
life marked him as a young man to be reckoned with, a writer of considerable
talent, but Connolly failed to live up to his early promise.
"Whom the Gods wish to destroy they first call promising," he famously
wrote, and it is difficult not to think that The Rock Pool (1936), his only
novel--a story of a young writer who goes to the south of France on holiday
and destroys himself--is not also semi-autobiographical. Upon its completion
and lukewarm reception, Connolly drifted disappointedly into criticism and
journalism, the very occupations he warned other writers to avoid.
"The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication: that is why so
many bad artists are unable to give it up," he wrote. It seems that
intoxication in its innumerable forms became Connolly's profession. He had the face
of a bulldog and the girth of a good-sized desk. He was messy and self-loathing
and a masterful freeloader. He lived high and hard, was married three times,
and he came home each night, he said, with "the feeling of obscure guilt that
comes after a day spent in this
thankless task of drowning other people's kittens."
Nonetheless, he managed to found Horizon with his wealthy friend
Peter Watson in 1939. Connolly presided imperiously over this pinnacle of
literary journalism for ten years, and it would prove to be nearly the
apex of his career.
Except for that book. The one for which he ought to be really
famous. The amazing, insightful, for-the-ages book--The Unquiet Grave:
A Word Cycle by Palinurus.
Using the name of Aeneas's pilot as his pseudonym, Connolly, in a collection of
epigrams, reflections and quotations from such masters of the written word as
Goethe, Voltaire and Baudelaire, freezes the literary ebb and flow of his
age before us for all time. About it no less an author than Ernest Hemingway wrote:
"It is a book which, no matter how many readers it
will ever have, will never have enough."
The Unquiet Grave
is the sort of jeans pocket/backpack/glove compartment
talisman that any writer should consider himself lucky to own. It is indispensible.
If "Node for the Ages" and "Earn Your Bullshit" are words
that you live by, pick up The Unquiet Grave and let Uncle Cyril show
you where your stuff is at.
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Bud and Travis
Camaron de la Isla
Wild Bill Donovan
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
king of the queens
Paco de Lucia
the Real McCoy
Robert K. Merton
J. Fred Muggs
Bernardino de Sahagun
A. J. Weberman